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Newtown: A Haven Of Hope During The Great Depression



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Newtown: A Haven Of Hope During The Great Depression

By Nancy K. Crevier

Call it a slump, an economic slowdown, or whatever other euphemistic shoe fits the foot; the rise in unemployment nationwide and global economic red flags spell r-e-c-e-s-s-i-o-n to many local residents. The National Bureau of Economic Research made it official Monday, saying the nation has been in recession since December 2007.

Newtown residents, like their counterparts across the country, are thinking twice before making large purchases, and while gas prices have sunk from $4-plus last summer to half that in November, those in the know understand that low prices at the pump do not bode well for the long term.

The list of properties threatened with foreclosure creeps upward. According to land records of the Town of Newtown, the number of foreclosures, including notices sent and action taken, has doubled in the last five years. From November of 2002 to December of 2003, approximately 22 foreclosures were registered with the town. In that same time frame this past year, that number stood at 53.

 Yet life goes on. The news is full of holidays celebrated, families attending school events, sports games played, and fundraisers supported. People get up and go to work. Disasters happen, disasters are averted. Town officials continue to pore over the dilemmas of governing, and building continues in fits and starts. A sense of doom does not cling to the town. It is not unlike the news of another time period when the national economy tanked — and life in Newtown went on.

The recession, or “readjustment” as Newtown historian Dan Cruson, an economics major and retired Joel Barlow High School history teacher, believes it should be called, is a result of a time of excess, he said, not unlike the era that ushered in the Great Depression.

The Great Depression of the 1930s heralded a time when the country was forced to unify to offset the excesses of the previous decade. When Wall Street crashed in October 1929, fortunes gained swiftly during the “Roaring Twenties” were lost just as swiftly. Unemployment was rampant, and the farmers not wiped out by an unfortunately timed drought produced more food than could be harvested — even while city-dwellers stood in line hoping for a bowl of soup.

But Newtown of the 1930s and today cannot really be compared, said Mr Cruson. “Remember that nationwide today we are talking about a five percent unemployment rate. At the height of the Depression, the unemployment rate was 25 percent,” he said. What they call a recession may in the long run hurt people in Newtown more today than the Depression affected people 70 years ago, Mr Cruson noted. A great number of people work outside of Newtown these days, and are among those who may have extended themselves with “McMansions” to support executive lifestyles.

“Newtown was primarily an agricultural town during the Depression years. There was a lot of trade amongst farming families and neighbors were there to help you out,” he said. “It was the case of ‘You have eggs, I have corn, we can help each other.’”

The UConn Department of Agriculture shows that in 1935, at the height of the Depression, there were 389 agricultural businesses in Newtown, occupying 60 percent of the town’s total area. At a population of about one-tenth of today’s, the social network of people living in Newtown in the 1930s was tighter than today, too, said Mr Cruson, even though homes and farms were more spread out than currently. “People didn’t have to ask for a handout. People walked more, life was at a slower pace, and people noticed their neighbors’ situations and what was going on.” The job loss and economic distress was more of a “something going on out there” for most people living in Newtown during the Depression, Mr Cruson said.

Headline news in the November 8, 1929 Newtown Bee is the opening of Sunset Tavern on Currituck Road. An elaborately decorated tavern welcomed 250 people the evening of November 2, according to the paper, less than a week after the Wall Street market took its swan dive. The Editorial Inkdrops’ observation that there are “A large number of New York professional and business men who are seeking summer homes in Fairfield County for rest and recreation,” does not indicate a sense of panic.

By far, in Newtown, the biggest news of 1929 was the destruction of St John’s Episcopal Church in Sandy Hook, when a fire broke out the night of December 29 and razed the building.

That is not to say the town was untouched, Mr Cruson noted. “The tourist trade did suffer. Many teahouses that had been so popular in the 1920s, failed in the 1930s. The Betsy Page Tearoom on Church Hill Road closed, as did so many of the tearooms catering to the auto trade. The day trip traffic was way down. What did well were those tourist houses that could offer, as the Sunset Tavern on Currituck Road did, overnight accommodations,” he said.

In Newtown Remembered: More Stories of the 20th Century, edited and published in 2006 by Mary Maki, Dan Cruson, and Andrea Zimmermann, Corona Vivian Rockwell Williams’ memoirs are one of a few that contain references to a not so pleasant Depression.

“After the Depression started in 1929, my father made only 29 dollars a week. I remember taking the check to the store to cash it. Half of the check went to pay the grocery bill. The rest, my mother kept in a cigar box on the top shelf of a cabinet.” A huge treat for the Williams children, she said, was when her mother would split up one package of Necco candy wafers between them all. She also recalled the movement of men on foot, walking from place to place, seeking work. Even with their own needs, though, the Williams family considered themselves better off than these men, and whenever possible, her mother would find a little something to offer to a hungry tramp. Ms Williams’ story, Mr Cruson said, is a good example of how people “made do” when they did not have much.

William Honan, Jr, in Newtown Remembered, also recalled that life was not easy for everyone in town during the Depression. “I remember going to school and people did not have sandwiches,” he said. Newtown VNA stepped up, with the assistance of neighbors, and soup was prepared and brought to Hawley School to feed everybody at lunchtime, though. Churches provided other relief when times were tough.

But by and large, Mr Cruson said, those who had little were not necessarily in such a plight because of the Depression. “There are always pockets of hardship,” said Mr Cruson.

A vague reference is made to the hardships being experienced across the country in the November 22, 1929, Newtown Bee Editorial Inkdrops when a visitor addresses the publisher, saying, “I tell you, Mr Smith, Connecticut is sitting on top of the world compared with that southern section, where I traveled and investigated financial conditions.” The column goes on to list what would appear to be the upswings in Newtown’s economy: the town is out of debt, a building boom is underway, the new Edmond Town Hall is being erected, and increased deposits are recorded at the Newtown Savings Bank.

Indeed, Mr Cruson pointed out, Newtown Savings Bank has only had two years in its history when it did not increase its assets, one being in the 1980s. “Interestingly, one of the years that the bank did not increase its assets occurred toward the end of the Depression, in 1938. The bank’s conservative policies continued to add to the assets during most of the Depression,” he said.

Social Life Goes On

Social life was not ready to go undercover in the Depression, either. Plenty of people still put on their dancing shoes and headed out to dance halls locally and in area towns. “Noted Southern Band Is Booked” declares a headline in The Bee the end of November 1929. It is one of many announcements for a chance to kick up the heels. In the midst of the Depression, Newtown threw a huge parade and celebration in honor of the George Washington Bicentennial in 1932.

Local baseball thrived in the 1930s. Newtown’s 4-H Club prospered, and churches, private parties, and the Chamber of Commerce hosted many social functions that were well attended. The C.H. Booth Library opened to the public in 1932, the erection of which kept many laborers in work.

Advertising that alluded to hard times appeared as the decade progressed. Referring to the stock market drop that caused “many a tragedy, some silent and some publicly known,” the New England Furniture Co., Inc of Danbury advertised a huge sale of “1930 merchandise at prices nearly as low as pre-war prices.”

In May 1930, three Danbury merchants, Lansman & Son, J.F. Woodruff & Co., and Stanley’s, Inc, advertised a joint sale where “Many will find decided help in these times, when money is not too plentiful with some…”

A 1932 ad by E.C. Platt The Lumberman of Hawleyville noted that “mills have been shipping material at less than actual cost of labor and freight charges — these conditions cannot last. A great many of the large lumber mills have either curtailed or stopped operation entirely and will not start cutting of milling again until they can get business which will show a profit.” The bad news for mills and mill workers, then, was good news for anyone interested in building who had cash on hand.

A front-page article in The Bee’s May 1932 is one of few that acknowledges the struggles of larger area towns and cities. “Mutual Aid Fund in Waterbury Doing Good Work” appears to encourage the farming community of Newtown to offer outreach to those in need: “There are many men walking the roads looking for work. Many of these men are deserving of employment and many are not. There are some people in the rural parts of Connecticut who can use additional help at this time of year. It is hoped that the jobs available may be filled by these individuals who have been investigated and who have dependents needing support.”

An increase in the ads for men and women seeking a position as caretaker, farm help, or household help is seen in The Bee, as well, during this time, and occasionally, an ad for placement of a young boy on a farm.

It was not so much that the news of the 1930s was dealt with behind the scenes, said Mr Cruson. Newtown really was fairly insulated from the drought-stricken regions of the Midwest and West, the financial disasters of Wall Street, and the poverty of the cities surrounding it. What was reported in The Newtown Bee of the 1930s, he said, depicted a fairly accurate account of what was — or was not — going on in the life of the average Newtowner.

“When you read about farming failures during the Depression,” said Mr Cruson, “it is almost always about the farms in Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl. That doesn’t really apply to this period in Newtown history.”

Changes On The Farm

The late George Mayer of Cherry Grove Farm, in Newtown Remembered, did point out some changes in farming that took place because of the Depression. Farmers turned from dairy farming to produce and butchering to make money. “Back in the Depression time, milk was bringing two cents a quart. Why produce it? We just went out of it,” Mr Mayer recalled. Some farmers did give up on farming, too, Mr Mayer noted, and when they did, the farms were sold at bargain prices. “ … A great many of these farmers sold [their farms] for $8,000 to $10,000,” he recalled.

“We always had plenty to eat,” William Honan, Jr, related about growing up during the Depression in Newtown Remembered. “My dad ran a store. A lot of the farmers could not pay their feed bills, and I remember my dad coming home and telling us that one of the people who owed him a feed bill offered him land where CL&P is… My dad said, ‘What do I want land for?’ Land was a nothing but a pain in the neck.”

However, the bulk of the farm auctions advertised in The Bee during the 1930s support Mr Cruson’s statement. The majority of farms advertised for sale or auction state in the ads that it is due to old age, retirement, estate settlement, or moving that has caused a farm to go up on the block. Other ads do not give a reason for the sale, but the number of properties offered each week do not increase dramatically, even in the mid-1930s.

A Thanksgiving sermon by the Reverend Paul Cullens of the Newtown Congregational Church in 1932 refers metaphorically to the hardships of the times, but stays positive, encouraging all “to continue to take wise and measured steps forward” in business and not be discouraged by the times. It is an attitude that prevailed in most religious and editorial columns that were published in the mid-1930s in The Bee.

The heaviest impact of the Depression was probably felt in the lakeside communities, Mr Cruson believes. The Zoar Lake summer communities that included Riverside, Lakeview Terrace, Cedarhurst, Shady Rest, and Pootatuck Park had gained in popularity during the 1920s. As the Depression took away expendable income and the city jobs that paid for a second home, though, many of the summer residencies became year around homes, despite rugged, barely passable winter roads that led to most of the lakeside communities.

Soule-Roberts, Inc, owners of Pootatuck Park, reported an “Unusually large number of sales” in August 1932, right as the Depression took a stronghold on most of the country. As with everything else, land was cheap — if you had any money. “There was a split between working classes and those who did not suffer in the Crash,” Mr Cruson said, “and there were still people after 1929 who could still afford summer homes.”

A Sense Of Hope

The Editorial Inkdrops in The Newtown Bee of December 21, 1934, and December 27, 1935, portray a sense of hope. “True, there are many hearths today where the pinch of poverty is severe… But since the Christmas of 1933 matters have become somewhat better, not only in this country, but abroad,” reads the 1934 end-of-the-year editorial in part. “In comparison with recent years,” begins 1935’s December 27 editorial, “New Year’s Eve will find more people moved to celebrate the old year out and the new year in. Economic conditions, as a whole, are not so strained.”

During the latter half of the 1930s, said Mr Cruson, people in the Newtown area were becoming more focused on the war in Europe than on the Great Depression, and it was the war machine that lifted the country, eventually, out of the economic slump.

Where does that leave Newtown in the current recession? The “haves” who are finding themselves to suddenly be “have nots” may not be so willing to go public, mused Mr Cruson. Neighbors may have to look closely to see what is going on in the lives of friends not willing to ask for assistance in hard times, unlike the tight-knit overseeing of each other’s lives that took place 70 years ago.

In the November 19 online issue of The Economist Magazine, banking correspondent Andrew Palmer paints a picture of a recession that may hurt a little bit more for a while longer before the economy readjusts. “Housing will remain a major drag on banks’ earnings,” he writes. “Most in the industry reckon that only when house prices in America reach their floor will the cycle really turn, but few are confident that this inflection-point will come in 2009. As prices fall further, more households will enter negative equity, in Europe as well as America. There are still plenty of mortgages with burning fuses. Perhaps the most widespread are America’s interest-only mortgages, which give homeowners a temporary holiday from principal repayments. Many of these borrowers will face a nasty payment shock in 2009.”

Whether in 70 years readers of local newspapers and online archives view the present days as a time of duress or not is yet to be seen. Perhaps the reader of the future will note that when lives were knocked ajar by economic circumstances, friends and neighbors rallied. It may look as though life in Newtown during the Recession of 2008, as during the Depression, went on.

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